Thursday, October 27, 2005

How to not be a rock star

In speaking to an audience of musicians, it's important to be realistic. They're dreamers. This is a fact exploited by the majority of popular literature and media for musicians. Looking back at my music-themed bookshelf, I see way too much "How to Be a Rock Star" fantasizing and not enough reality.

The more mundane (but supposedly indispensable) "Everything You Need to Know About Whatever" books quickly collect dust once the lay reader stumbles upon the percentage of gross mechanical royalties the producer receives before recouping. Say what?

But even the cooler, more down-to-earth books, like the ball-busting classic Confessions of a Record Producer, are still geared towards a musician's lust for rock stardom. The book details the many ways in which unsuspecting young artists can be viciously exploited by the money-hungry recording industry, but it's nothing more than recreational reading for the vast sea of musicians that will never see a recording contract.

It's not that the fantasy of rock stardom has a wholly negative connotation; both Kurt Cobain and I rocked out on our cheap guitars in front of the mirror facing thousands of imaginary fans. Even rock stars have rock star fantasies. Whether you're a celebrity or an amateur, being a musician is about communicating with people on a level that can't be reached by any other means. It's the same for every artist, from Sony Records to the sidewalk.

Fame and fortune signify to many musicians successful communication. This is a media and industry distortion. The quality of music must come before its quantity. Successful communication -- "good music" -- is about quality. Quantity (album sales) should follow from popular acceptance of "good music". Instead, quantity follows from public demand that is just as manufactured as the product being sought. Quality is an afterthought; it's an extra bonus if less than half the album sucks.

And that brings us full circle. Ask any musician and they'll tell you that music, on the whole, sucks these days. The "music" they speak of in the general sense is whatever's "popular" or "mainstream" or "selling millions of records while the rock stars bathe in champagne and I eat Ramen." Aspiring artists hear the media conglomerate broadcast pipe vomiting plastic pop at the supermarket and, fortunately for us, reach for the guitar before the gun. They make music to create noise in the system and interrupt the bland frequencies that listeners are inundated with.

It's no surprise, then, that musicians can be a conflicted, bitter bunch. The majority of them carry unfulfilled dreams of becoming rock stars. Paradoxically, the reason they keep playing music is because rock stars suck! They hate the mainstream yet yearn to direct its current with music of their own.

I think a lot of musicians subconsciously recognize that their rock star odds are low and even if they do get lucky, the house always wins. It only takes a few days on the road to realize you've gotta pay to play. But it's time for musicians to bravely confront the world beyond rock stardom: the real world, where the majority of musicians are independent and struggling to realize their dreams.

This world bears no resemblance to the set of American Idol. It looks more like your local music shop, VFW hall, suburban basements, cramped rehearsal rooms, music college campuses, open mic nights, dirty 15-passenger vans and small clubs.

This is the audience I want to write for. It's who I am, and it's who I want to reach out to. In the world of music, we are the creative majority. It's time to drop the rock star myth. We're over that. If it happens, it happens. Being a rock star is no more of a career choice than being a racecar driver. You only have to prove you're good and get a few lucky breaks. Winning is secondary to playing.

I've never seen a royalty check, but I'll still play the guitar in front of the mirror, imagining 1,000 screaming fans. 999 of them won't be at my show tomorrow. I'm playing for the one who will. Maybe they'll tell a friend. Maybe they'll buy a T-shirt.

If all you want to do is be a rock star, you'll spend thousands on musical equipment and years of your life to reach semi-unemployed creative purgatory. If you acknowledge your humble role as communicator and accept the responsibility of taking care of yourself... you might sell a T-shirt and the band can go out for pancakes after the show.

What's it gonna be? Purgatory or pancakes?


Blogger Steve Robinson said...

Zac, you're a man after my own heart.You nailed it with this deftly written piece.Cheers then, Steve R.
PS. Pancakes it is,then.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a better question would be "pancakes or pineapples?"

Let's chew on that for awhile.

2:03 PM  
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